Right from the first lines, in fact, from the very first line of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri creates an opposition between light and shadow that is rich in meaning. The wood in which he gets lost is “dark”, and to escape from that fearful place, his first instinct is to look for light by scaling the mountain in front of him beyond which he can sense the first rays of sunshine. As we knew, three fierce beasts block his path and he has to be rescued by the soul of the Roman poet Virgil, who has unexpected news. Before seeing the light again, Dante will have to journey to the darkest place of all and descend underground to Hell (Inferno) where the sun does not reach, before climbing back up to Purgatory (Purgatorio) and onto the celestial spheres of Heaven (Paradiso).
Dante enters the three kingdoms at different times of the day. It is still night when he reaches the valley that leads to Hell, the place where he will witness the worst kinds of life and evil that human beings are capable of. At dawn he comes to the foot of Mount Purgatory, where souls glimpse the hope of attaining complete forgiveness for their sins. And at midday he begins his assent to Paradise, where the divine light emitted by the angels illuminates everything, forever, in a symbol of salvation.
The allegorical and religious value of light would have been understood immediately by Dante’s medieval Christian readers, but the poet did not use only this heritage of relatively common knowledge, he also developed it to create a powerful body of imagery that earned him the reputation he still enjoys today. 2021 marks the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death and it is an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on the quantity and variety of inspiration his most famous work offers.
There does not seem to be any field of art that has not been influenced by the Divine Comedy, no matter how recent. In the rest of this article we will present a small but significant sample of works specifically inspired by Dante’s imagery that the poet himself could not have imagined, including a video game, a hip hop album and a manga comic.
Without doubt, the cantica that has left the richest legacy over time and across the world is the Inferno, probably because its language is the easiest to understand, its metaphors are closer to our everyday lives and its characters are more humane and fallible. The words of the damned do not need learned comments to engage us. They talk to us indirectly about our own earthly experience, and instead of evoking aspirations to saintliness that are not as common today as they would have been in the Italian peninsula in the fourteenth century, they describe feelings of weakness and guilt.
There does not seem to be any field of art that has not been influenced by the Divine Comedy, no matter how recent.
Trailer for the video game Dante’s Inferno
There are at least three video games inspired by Dante’s Inferno, two of which date back to the 1980s, whereas the last and best known came out in 2010. It is called Dante’s Inferno and it was created by Electronic Arts for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
In this game, the Dante Alighieri that we control and move through the circles of damned souls is both accompanied by the poet Virgil and in love with Beatrice. But that is where the similarities with the original main character of the Divine Comedy ends. This Dante is a veteran Templar knight from the Third Crusade (an event that actually took place about a hundred years before the birth of the real Dante) and he has to fight flames and demons to save his beloved Beatrice from the clutches of Lucifer who has kidnapped her. Virgil is also not the selfless guide that accompanies his disciple to the threshold of Paradise and then vanishes because he is an unbaptised pagan and cannot continue. In the video game, he expects Dante to put in a good word for him so he can be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Dante, who is a kind of warrior monk, moves forward defending himself against the attacks of devils and the damned by brandishing a sickle and a cross. The latter being a useful weapon that can either condemn and disintegrate his enemies or absolve them and save their souls.
From left to right, Murubutu and Claver Gold
For many people, hell is not a conical chasm beneath the city of Jerusalem, but a daily life of financial difficulties, social exclusion and physical or mental problems. These are relatively common topics in the hip hop universe that are often accompanied by a strong desire for social redemption. But there is nothing common about rapping about this kind of hell in an album full of references to Dante, like the two Italian rappers Murubutu and Claver Gold do in their 2020 album Infernum.
However, the 13 tracks on Infernum whose titles refer to characters or locations from Dante’s work, are not simple paraphrases of his cantica but a journey through contemporary issues like substance dependence, cyberbullying, prostitution and individualism. This is an Inferno that anyone can fall into, and the two rappers tell the stories of their characters with no moral judgements.
A book version of Infernum was also published with comments by Patrick Cherif and illustrations by Roby il Pettirosso
And for anyone who feels this project may be over-ambitious - as what do modern rappers know about medieval literature? Before giving into prejudice, remember that Murubutu is a High School philosophy and literature teacher, and his rhymes are full of important cultural references.
The Divine Comedy by Go Nagai
Cover of the Italian edition of La Divina Commedia (J-Pop) by Go Nagai; the author at the Japan Expo 2008 in Paris (photo: Georges Seguin)
If everyone in Italy and Europe knows something about the continent’s medieval history, Catholic doctrine and the general structure of the Divine Comedy, this knowledge cannot be taken for granted with a Japanese public. This is why a major manga author, like Go Nagai, chose to transmit his passion for Dante’s work to his compatriots through a popular adaptation, The Divine Comedy (in Japanese, ダンテ神曲, Dante Shinkyoku).
Published between 1994 and 1995 in Japan, translated into a range of different languages and recognised as a valuable work in its own right, Go Nagai’s Divine Comedy is 700 pages long and over 500 of them are dedicated to the Inferno.
On the left, an illustration by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) dedicated to the circle of the lustful.
On the right, Go Nagai’s tribute.
The literary inspiration for this work was already quite challenging, but the author (famous for having created characters like Mazinger Z, Ufo Robot Grendizer, Steel Jeeg and Devilman) chose to further embellish his work by basing it on Gustave Doré’s engravings. Created for an 1861 French edition of the Divine Comedy these illustrations are probably the most elegant figurative accompaniment to this work in existence. In his manga, Go Nagai reproduces these images with great care and originality. He also succeeds in creating the same dark, eerie, and almost horror-like atmosphere that has made Doré’s illustrations immortal.